Saturday, July 08, 2006

Absolute Truth

The notion of Absolute Truth began from the conviction that, though what we are justified in believing changes, what is in all actuality true stays the same. We can imagine its origins in the notion of a supreme being that looked down on the affairs of humanity from on high and had, because of its omniscience, an invariable sense of truth. Plato still had this notion of omniscience when he suggested that the affairs of humanity were a pale reflection of what was really going on, mere shadows of the actual objects. So, Plato said, we could follow the Sophists and play with shadows if we wanted, but true philosophers seek the actual objects standing behind them.

Plato, however, didn’t just posit his notion of the Realm of the Forms as some explanation of why things change, of why we used to think kings or democracy were good, but now we don’t. Plato also had a much more practical goal in mind. Plato had learned from his teacher, Socrates, that doing what you believe is pious conversationally amounts to the same thing as performing the will of the gods. And yet, Plato thought that we could find out what the will of the gods was. He thought he had found a method, a way of cutting through the thick veil of appearance. This was Socrates’ elenchus transformed into the dialectic. The exercise of the Republic was to show that if we found out more about the Form of Justice, we could be more just to our fellow citizens, more about the Form of the Good, more ethical to other people, more about Truth, less wrong.

If we could find out more about Truth, which is invariable, eternal, and absolute, we could have more true beliefs—truth is the ultimate justification. The trouble that immediately confronted Plato’s project was the sense that its aspirations and ambition was enormous. To undertake the project of looking for the ultimate justification was to bypass run-of-the-mill justification, which we can see in Plato’s bitterness in describing the ship of state—nobody bothers to ask how to run the ship the only people who really know how to run the ship. The problem, of course, is that the Platonic philosopher’s faraway gaze tends to gloss over the here and now. Plato thought that in the long run, philosophers were the only way to go. But in the short run, Aristotle’s practical philosophy took over the hearts and minds of intellectuals.

I follow Stephen Toulmin in thinking that Descartes marked the resurgence of the Platonic desire to bypass the here and now of justification to attain the always and forever of Absolute Truth. This desire is marked by the priority of epistemology, of figuring out and getting straight in advance what the foundations and criteria are for truth and justification. By figuring out in advance what the criteria of truth are we could short-circuit the need to justify for particular audiences. Descartes, like Plato, knew that any particular person or audience could be flawed, though both supposed that every person, deep down, has the same unequivocal capacity to see the Truth.

Post-Cartesian epistemology has struggled long and hard in the face of a seemingly insurmountable difficulty: all criteria are stated by people, people who belong to audiences, audiences that are transitory and perhaps flawed. The counterinsurgency to Cartesian philosophy, led by philosophers from Bayle and Hume to Hegel and Nietzsche to James and Wittgenstein, has been a long trail countering the idea that we may yet erect an ahistorical boundary-water for what we may think, for what truth may appear as to us. The trail has taken many turns and forms, but one thing is worth highlighting here: every step of the way, every counter to proposed methods and criteria, has forced Cartesians further and further away from the lives of their fellow brethren. Cartesian philosophy became more and more insulated from the concerns of humanity the harder they tried to formulate this foundation for Knowledge and Truth. And this surely makes predictable sense: one can imagine that reformulating and refining a project who’s goal is to bypass the need for any particular, historically instantiated audience’s assent (because an audience’s assent is the devil’s curse of transitory historicity) will eventually become remote from what the rest of humanity is doing. As every branch originally grown on philosophy’s tree fell to the earth, from astronomy to physics and psychology to intellectual history, philosophy happily waved good-bye and focused on what increasingly became its only purpose: the search for Absolute Truth, though in these latter days we prudently call it something like the search for independent criteria of veridical validity.

As the 19th-century strolled into the 20th, in the anglophone world old-school system building waned in the face of the waxing of what is now called “analytic philosophy”. Philosophers put the sloppy and tidy speculations aside in favor of the solution to definite and discernible problems. Everything, however, still revolved around the search for criteria. After all, without criteria for the solution of problems, arguments would continue on for centuries—like they had been. Philosophers began to feel anxious about this. What’s more, the movement that many early analytic philosophers had pinned their hopes on, logical positivism, began to fall apart by the middle of the century. Logical positivists had thought that they had finally found their way to Truth. Their first move against the muddy tradition of criterionless, speculative philosophy was to pin all of their hopes on science. The New Science changed philosophy irrevocably in Descartes’ time, but the logical positivists thought that the philosophical proposals marshaled by the descendents of Descartes and Locke, and even Kant (though especially evil Hegel), had fallen away from the science bandwagon and had hoped for something special for themselves. Oh no, said the logical positivists, science is where it is all happening and the sooner we figure that out the better we’ll all be. Science gets results. They have criteria. So, positivists said, the sooner we start acting like scientists, the sooner we’ll solve these trifle things we call “philosophical problems.”

Having already peremptorily relegated themselves to a status lower than physics, they set about trying to help science by getting straight what science was doing. This prompted the second move against the tradition, the move towards the study of language. Since everything has to be stated in language, the sooner we get a rigorous, scientific study of language off the ground, a set of logical and grammatical rules, the sooner this mess will all end—hence the rise of symbolic logic in philosophy departments.

To pull it all together, both the obeisance to science and the lynchpin of language, the logical positivists proposed their great criterion for truth: the verifiability criterion. If what made science so lovely was that it was verifiable, and science got us truth, then shouldn’t the great criterion for truth be verifiability? This wasn’t a bad idea at all, except for one thing: how was the criterion itself verifiable? By any of the interesting versions of the criterion’s own lights, the criterion itself was unverifiable and therefore cognitively meaningless. This broke one of the first rules of philosophy: don’t deny anything you’ve presupposed.

Logical positivism never really recovered and through the fifties and sixties was subjected to continuous attacks by an ever more bolder subsection of the analytic establishment. This subsection began to increasingly identify as pragmatists. The pragmatists from an earlier generation, Peirce, James, and Dewey, were famously reviled by the up and coming analytic movement. Russell said of Dewey that the pragmatist theory of truth amounted to “the danger of what might be called cosmic impiety.” The pragmatists were famous for returning to the realm of human praxis, in focusing on justification, rather than truth. Platonic realists like Russell feared that such an exultation of the powers of humanity might bring the hubris of future generations declaring that Caesar never crossed the Rubicon.

Analytics who led the attack on logical positivism were those like Quine, Sellars, Kuhn, Feyerabend, Putnam, Davidson, and Rorty. Rorty in particular became a poster-boy for the attacks because of his combination of acute analysis and argumentation, breadth of historical knowledge, range of philosophical acquaintance, and, perhaps unfortunately most of all, his penchant for bombastic turns of phrase. Rorty linked most explicitly the movement away from logical positivism to the movement towards pragmatism, but, like James and Dewey before him, became attached to such notions as relativism, irrationalism, nihilism, and the end of philosophy. For our purposes at hand, he was taken to deny truth. By attacking the notion of “absolute truth,” the Platonic notion of theoretically outlining where and how truth occurs and therefore what is true, Rorty suggested that truth is not a philosophically interesting topic that inquiry into could help in the living of our lives.

Lately Rorty has come to grips with the idea that some of the suggestions proposed by pragmatism are counterintuitive, which itself seems counterintuitive to the idea of pragmatism. Pragmatism was supposed to be about the elimination of extraneous philosophical attachments, appealing to the common sense of our practical lives. But Rorty agrees with Feyerbend that, for instance, as long as we have common speech, we are going to have the idea of “mind,” that which philosophical wrecking balls like Ryle and Dennett have been trying to demystify. Rorty has generalized this sentiment (along with Nietzsche’s that as long as we have grammar, we’ll have God) by suggesting that Platonism is built into our common sense. But philosophy since Plato has been not just about summarizing the way we think, but also suggesting changes in the way we think. In philosophy, the intuitive has always been commingled with the counterintuitive to create a new intuition, a new common sense that is perhaps better than the old.

One of the ways in which this is given effect is by making a distinction between commonsensical conversation and philosophical conversation, so-called “speaking with the vulgar” and more sophisticated, specialized talk. As I suggested above, philosophy has become a highly technical enterprise that has been disengaging itself from everyday life for many, many years. Some people, however, are suspicious of such a distinction between two conversations, seeing it as breeding pointless jargonizing and instead valuing “plainer speech.” However, I think one can still keep, for instance, Pirsig’s criticism of pointless Victorian circumlocutions while acknowledging that, for instance, scientists keep the kind of distinction I’m talking about between their activities at work and at home (by calling it a “table” instead of a “cloud of electrons between vectors X, Y, and Z”), or between writing articles for scientific journals and writing a “popular science” book.

The point is the common sense one that our words gain resonance and meaning from the contexts in which we use them. A great impetus for 20th century analytic philosophy was the notion that the problems of philosophy (so-called “metaphysical problems” like free will vs. determinism) were created by taking words like “freedom” out of the original, common sense contexts in which they arose and creating a new context for them, one that warped their original meaning until it had little to do with the original context, thus creating pseudo-problems—in other words, metaphysics was simply a set of pointless circumlocutions that just confused things.

The subsection of the analytic movement that was based on the above impetus became known as “ordinary language philosophy”, or Oxford philosophy (because of the residence of its most well-known gurus, J. L. Austin, Gilbert Ryle, and P. F. Strawson). On the one hand, Oxford philosophy foundered just as logical positivism did, but it does create added pressure for us philosophers in justifying some of the contexts we deal in. How does, or could, this effect us? What I think we see in the rise of neopragmatism, basically pragmatism in the analytic idiom (i.e., post-linguistic turn), is the rewrapping of the upshot of both Oxford philosophy and logical positivism. Logical positivism was also known in a slightly wider sense as “ideal language philosophy”. Their goal was to create a language that made it impossible to state or make sense of philosophical problems. They looked to the future, to possible innovations in language to relieve us of these problems, whereas ordinary language philosophy looked to our past, at the ways in which we use words in common sense contexts. I think pragmatism combines these two directions by playing them off of each other. We look at the way in which we currently use words, we look at our current contexts, and if we see problems arising, we either 1) eschew the context as being extraneous, as serving a pointless purpose or 2) change the language we use, change the context so that it may serve its purpose, but without the problems. (This distillation of wisdom from mid-20th century analytic philosophy comes out strongly when we retrospectively read Rorty’s judicious introduction to his 1967 anthology The Linguistic Turn.)

With the notion of “absolute”, I would like to say that there’s nothing wrong with it in common sense contexts, but that there is something wrong with some of the notions created in philosophical contexts—that the effects in such contexts do not extend to everyday life at all. As James said after likewise dismissing the free will/determinism problem, it makes a difference that makes no difference. So, on the one hand saying that “my cat absolutely died by hanging itself with its leash” is true and perfectly understandle, saying that “we have to believe in Absolute Truth to be truthful”, while possibly making sense, cannot ever effect our practice. Plato created an activity, that of inquiring into Truth, of creating a theory of Truth that would surround all true statements, that cannot end, and cannot therefore cash out for us in everyday practice, because treating truth as an object of inquiry creates an activity that has no criteria for even knowing if we had found what we were looking for, an activity that would go on indefinitely with no parameters for even knowing which direction is the right direction to go hunting in. Absolute Truth, as an object to be inquired into, theorized and philosophized about, is a wheel that spins idly by itself. And if it is dead weight, it would be best to cut it loose from our philosophical language, thus trimming our own philosophical language and not letting it get away from us with pointless jargonizing.

The reason why pragmatists have often been excoriated about truth is because the so-called pragmatist theory of truth is said to prove its own falsity—if the true is what works, then the pragmatist theory of truth is false, ‘cuz it don’t work. Pragmatists like Rorty and Davidson have learned that this is right, that as a theory of truth it doesn’t work. One of the formulations that Dewey gave is that truth is warranted assertibility. If truth is warranted assertibility, then “truth” becomes the same thing as “justification”. That conflation is exactly what leads people to call pragmatists relativists, because while we see that justification is relative to audiences, communities, contexts, truth is separate from it for the exact reason that relativism is absurd.

So pragmatists should be willing to admit that justification is different from truth. What they’ve realized though is that the problem is with thinking we need a theory of truth, that we need (or can have) an interesting definition of truth. As Davidson says, truth, like good, is indefinable. The development of theories of truth are exactly those philosophical activities that treat Truth as an object of inquiry, inquiries through which we could learn more about truth and therefore, ideally, the application of “true” to particular linguistic items like “Slavery is wrong”. But how can we learn anything if, in such an inquiry, we appear to be in an endless sea with no compass?

In recent years, Rorty has learned to be content with the notion that truth is an absolute concept. Rorty is splitting the difference between common sense and the counterintuitive suggestions of pragmatism. It makes sense to say that justification is relative, but not truth. So we can say in perfect coherence that the Greeks were justified in practicing slavery, but they were still wrong. Truth may be an absolute notion, but pragmatists think we should give up the hope for a theory of it, that we should stop treating it as an object of inquiry. Justification (by such earmarks as Pirsig’s “tests of truth”) is our only criterion for truth, but that shouldn’t lead us to think they are the same, though likewise we shouldn’t hope for some other criterion. Justification is relative to community, but that doesn’t make us relativists because it isn’t clear what other criterion we could have for truth. It simply makes us fallible experimentalists, always in search of betterness. There are no theories for truth, justification, or betterness. We simply accrue them by the living of life.


  1. Scott RobertsJuly 09, 2006

    A couple of comments:

    First, I would argue that what neo-pragmatists have been arguing against is Cartesianism, rather than Platonism. For example, I would think that for Plato, and definitely for the neo-Platonists, Absolute Truth is not something one can acquire through reasoning, and hence not something one can have a theory about. On the other hand, they would say that learning to reason and aspiring for Truth is good for you. I don't think that Plato thought that his words alone could free the prisoners in the cave, but they could lead one to realize that he is a prisoner. Same for the medievals. For them, Absolute Truth is another name for God, and so, short of redemption, not available, and even human truth requires revelation. Orthodox views were about preserving the mystery, while heretical views replaced the mystery with something understandable. But as reasoners, we are at least imitating the Logos. All this changes with Descartes et al. With Descartes, reason becomes a tool for some other purpose, like discerning self-evident first principles which serve as absolute criteria.

    Second, if 'true' is an absolute concept like Rorty now says (and I can agree to that), then so are 'justification', 'language', 'criteria', 'language game', 'definition', and so forth, while no particular justification, definition, etc. is absolute, those being relative to a community. And so one has an absolute metaphysics: reality is created through establishing criteria, definitions, modes of justification, etc., which is to say by creating contingent static patterns of value, within which one can be creative on a lesser scale, and occasionally on a larger scale, tear them down and rebuild. Of course, to take this as metaphysics one has to give up nominalism, so that one can extend it from the human to the non-human. As a nominalist one is restricted to saying it is an analogy.

    Last note: I would add to the reasons that Rorty gets the heat is that he is more readable than those other guys.

  2. AnonymousJuly 11, 2006

    You said:
    "There are no theories for truth, justification, or betterness. We simply accrue them by the living of life."
    That is a wise statement, more true then the truth, and the best thing written here yet. We simply discover the necessraly ways by which truth/reality, can be experienced.

  3. "Don't deny anything you've presupposed." Okay, this is a different domain, but this sounds like a reasonable way to get along in a marriage. We all have presumptions on which our relationships are based: "My wife is basically a good person. She normally does what I consider to be the right thing." That sort of thing. So when minor speedbumps occur ("I can't believe you spent the whole thing...") we can either say, this is an exception, nothing to worry about and along we sail. OR, we can worry about it being a part of bad pattern, which seems to deny the original presumption and leads to trouble.

    (Okay, who let the non-philosoper in here?)

  4. Andrew, I think your family resemblance attitude between the intricacies of philosophical argumentation and the realm of social relationships isn't a bad attitude to have.

    Two things come to mind: one is my fervent love of Dear Abby columns. By far and away my favorite is Dan Savage's Savage Love (which has been running in The Onion for years). One of the pieces of wisdom he's been pumping out for years is the idea that for a healthy relationship to work, one needs to honest. Obvious, right? Part of this, however, comes from his revisioning of the social commitment from what I would call a Christian descended "soul commitment" (what my ex- called a "commitment to commitment") to what we might simply call a "person commitment". The idea is that souls don't change--so neither should commitments to the "person" hovering on the surface of that soul change. Till death do us part. A _person_, however, obviously does change over the course of their life. Dan Savage's advice has been that 1) you're commited to a person because they satisfy certain things you want (which could be innumerable, some even unconscious) and 2) if they stop satisfying them, you're no longer bound by the commitment. That sounds selfish, but its like the False Advertising Fallacy: if person A likes having a lot of sex, and person B has a lot of sex with A during the first year or two of their relationship, A is bound to think that they've found "The One". If after getting married B stops being interested in sex, A is likely to feel cheated. B isn't simply acting differently, B is _actually a different person_ in the eyes of A--i.e., not who A married. So, A has a choice: love the new B, or decide that sex is a bigger deal then the other things that B still satisfies.

    What I called the False Advertising Fallacy is kinda' like what you described in denying a presumption of the relationship, which leads to trouble. If you assume your lover is a good person, and does things good people do, then if your lover starts being a bad person, you're likely to think your lover isn't the person you thought she was--and if your love is contingent at least partly on your lover being a good person, that bodes ill.

    All of this has a family resemblance to something I talked about in the series of posts on begging the question. If two arguments, or more generally, discoures, start off from different assumptions, they are likely to be talking past each other, because, strictly speaking, they logically don't hook up. They _aren't_ talking about the same thing. In life, as anyone who has engaged in philosophical dialogue knows, having different working assumptions (about any number of things) can lead to huge conversational headaches. In life, particularly marriage, having different background assumptions, or presumptions, can lead to a confusing, tangled mess that is more likely than not to lead to tragedy.

  5. If I understand you right, Matt, I think I agree -- for me, the great difficulty is in finding a certain balance(that's a purposely vague phrase) between metaphysicianism and pragmatism. Obviously, I'm a bumbling idiot when it comes to expressing these things... but have you ever met one of those flaky head-in-the-clouds people who always wants to speculate about ethereal other-wordly non-issues? They always seem to be bad at paying bills on time and keeping their apartments clean. The problem with Plato (or with any subsequent idealist/transcendentalist) is to find a way to make idealist thinking applicable in the real world. Vice Versa: thorough pragmatists are horrible at "thinking the eternal."

    For my money, this is "problem" is without resolution. After all, what does my un-clean, flaky friend care about the empty pizza boxes piling up on her oven? -- she has epistemology to think about.

    Is that coming around to it?

  6. Great post.

    I like Stout's contribution to the pragmatist project in Democracy and Tradition, where he argues that practices, by their very *ahem* "nature," entail subscribing to a distintion between how things seem to me and how things truly are. He illustrates this with soccer - each of the players might have a perspective on things, that what X did to Y didn't seem like a foul, at some point it must be determined what really happened (deferring to a ref, instant replay, etc.). So as long as we are participating in practices, we are submitting to a distinction between appearance and truth.

    And when aren't we participating in practices?

  7. So I agree to some extent that while there may be no successful theories of truth, there are standards (those internal to practices).

    I would like to take issue with one theme - criticizing "Platonists" (broadly speaking) for speaking about things that have neither pertinence to practical life nor the possibility of resolution. I like satisfying conversations, and I often find that the most satisfying conversations are those without resolution and without utility for practical life. Kind of like games, to allude to Wittgenstein and Huizinga.

  8. Casey:
    I'm leery of the way you place the distinction between metaphyscians and pragmatists. I think we should disjoin the distinction between people who have their "head-in-the-clouds" and people who are "down-to-earth" from philosophical positions. I'm skeptical about attributing philosophical theses to every day behavior, though seeing how behavior effects philosophical positions is another matter. For instance, the way you set your distinction I'd be a metaphysician--my apartment is terribly messy. If you disjoin the two, I think one would probably find a strong correlation between self-described philosophers and people with their heads in the clouds.

    I think you're absolutely right about practices (though I'm still suspicious of such phrases as "how things truly are" and "standards of truth"). This is exactly why pragmatists shouldn't be taken to deny truth. They just deny theories. This is also why Robert Brandom (another former student of Rorty) has set about creating a thoroughly antirepresentationalist, de-epistemologized social practice philosophy of language in his Making it Explicit, calling it "inferentialism".

    And you're right about activities that have "neither pertinence to practical life nor the possibility of resolution" possibly being fun and worth doing. That's not exactly the fulcrum on which I would criticize Platonism. The problem is the pretensions that Platonism still carries in thinking they can solve the problem and make it pertinent. If one is no longer under those illusions, and enjoy talking about "the limits of knowledge" over a beer at a pub with buddies, there's nothing wrong with that.

    Pragmatists stretch "utility" out by making it "utility for ______". And there are potentially an infinite number of purposes that things can be useful for. For instance, poetry may not seem useful to practical life (and "resolution" seems out of place for poetry), but it doesn't typically have that purpose--something else like pleasure, or edification, or self-creation. But Platonism's had both resolution and pratical utility in its sights, and pragmatists think that particular project hasn't panned out.

    Philosophy, if Rorty is to be believed, is exactly that kind of conversation that will never have an end, but one which we must continue. Rorty's imperative for philosophy is to always keep the conversation going. However, he thinks that to both keep it going and count it as a progressive conversation (one that learns from its past and evolves), we need to cut out some of the pretensions.

  9. Thanks for the response, Matt. I see how Platonism can get pretentious once it steps over the "philosophy for phlilosophy's sake" line. I like Rorty's point, in Philosophy and Social Hope, about keeping resolution and utility separated.

    My suspicious phrases were merely attempts to subscribe to the notation suggested by the title of the post - so that they would seem relevant to the topic of "truth."

    Now that I think about it a little more, why can't it be claimed that phronesis is precisely the kind of knowledge Plato was after? That is, what's the difference again between "utilizing things" and "knowing them"? I think Heidegger (in Being and Time) synthesizes them rather than separates them - though he does distinguish the practical form of knowing form the "objective" form of knowing.

  10. RE philosophy

    “Philosophy is the science which considers truth”

  11. Well, let's just say that I think Aristotle and Descartes less right than Monty Python.


Want to get in touch with me but are too scared to universalize and eternalize your comments for all everywhere and always to see? Just e-mail me: